Monday, April 19, 2010
A desire for immediacy attracts me to the theater. I long to experience the indefinable breadth of our human experience, culminating in a single moment, or series of moments. I find it in the theatrical, before my eyes, penetrating my ears, surrounding me as the great globe itself. A string of words, a string of moments, are as contemporary as our need to experience them; written two thousand years or two thousand seconds ago, we know contemporary language when we hear it because it speaks to something so far beyond our comprehension that we are forced to rely on the unrelenting truth-sense of our entrails.
Why, then, am I so often estranged on paper from the words of writers with whom I do, literally, share space and time? Why do they seem so overly clever, so intellectual, and so dry, like an almond? And then how do I characterize the transformation that occurs once their words resonate in the chest and resound in the theater? Possibly the inherent theatricality and sophistication emerging on stage is born in the conflation of an almost-too-cleverness on paper with the living, full-bodied, bare-naked, moment to moment, energetic truth of theater.
Reading Sarah Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play” did not generate a sense of longing. Instead, I was removed from the visceral by an awareness of what I thought the writer was trying to get me to feel. The beauty of the piece only began to emerge once I experienced the impact of two characters, standing two inches apart, both closer and further from one another as any two people have ever been—breathing together, building a rhythm together and breaking it down together, experiencing a parallel weighted legato giving way to a parallel light and airy staccato. Sarah Ruhl does not break the fourth wall, she simply dispels the illusion that there ever was one.
Contemporary language contains the capacity to hit and engage an audience via a self-awareness that refuses to limit the size of the theater. In a successful artistic execution there is no room for commentary; There is no exit provided by which to get outside of the artifice. Today we are exposed at a rate of ten thousand flashbulbs per microcosm, but it has always been the challenge of a contemporary playwright to betray unrelenting scenic life, to imagine, endow, and record the seemingly disparate array of images in which we are eternally steeped. The scripted material remaining may not be a traditional narrative, but slowly reveals itself as a story.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Over the past year and a half I have been in conversation with Natasha Terranova, who is now a second year student in our Two Year training program. Natasha is a published poet and has a deep understanding of the written word. As a Conservatory student, she has been required and encouraged to see plays. We have been talking about what is new and exciting in the Portland theatre scene. She is particularly excited about the plays she has seen from some of the country's newest playwrights. Adam Rapp, Peter Sinn Nachtieb, Jenny Shwartz and Sarah Ruhl. In fact, she is acting as stage manager on a production at the Conservatory of Sarah Ruhl's Melancholy Play. In our conversations we have begun to categorize the commonality in these playwrights and their plays.
I think these plays are aware of their own inherent theatricality, a self-awareness that draws the audience forward and into the world of the play. They have an understanding of the energetic contact between performance and audience in the immediate time and space. They are sophisticated and clever in use of language and stagecraft, and could only be product of the theatre, not of any other artistic medium.
My perception has been influenced by the TBA Festival and the works of the avant-garde or fringe theatre (Richard Foreman, Marie Irene Fornes, Bill Irwin), and a performance movement to experiment with time and space to create immediacy. In talking about the Contemporary plays produced in this season in Portland, and those workshopped at the JAW Festival by writeres like Will Eno, Jordan Harrison, Adam Bock, Kimberly Rosenstock, and others, I have recognized similar experimentation in more traditional playwriting.
The best of the avant-garde and the best of contemporary theatre may break the traditional narrative conventions of time and space, may break the fourth wall, but they keep the story at the center, using it to communicate big ideas and bring the audience on an emotional journey. I define Contemporary Theatre as smart, theatrical plays exposing the soft vulnerable human center to an audience in the immediate time and space of performance.